CBC In Depth
INDEPTH: SREBRENICA
Besieged Sarajevo
John Chipman, CBC Radio's The Current | July 2003

From April, 1992 for nearly four years, Sarajevo was the scene of bitter fighting between Serbs, Bosnians and Croats. More than 10,000 people died in the city.

"Besieged Sarajevo" is far from the sprawling, polished museum exhibitions found in New York or Toronto.

It's in a single room in the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, once a communist building on Sarajevo's main thoroughfare. A large black box of concrete and windows built on a smaller concrete base, the museum looks like an oversized square head screw drilled into the heart of Sarajevo.

Photos, newspaper headlines and cartoons line the walls. Old, outdated display cases line the floor. It's a look back at life in the city during the war and the incredible lengths people went to survive.

The spirit of Sarajevo is on full display. In the photo of a businessman walking to work as sniper fire rains down around him, in the poster for the Sarajevo Orchestra, promoting a concert in the burned-out rubble of the National Library, in the exhibit of homemade stoves.

Elma Hasimbegovic is one of the exhibition's curators. She is in her mid-20s, and was a teenager during the siege. She remembers the hardship and the close calls.

"When electricity was cut off, people had no place to cook food. So they used different ways to make these stoves. This one is made of cans, oil cans. Or this one made of a pot. But really nicely done," she says.

"It was 1995, the day was nice and sunny and we were out. It was so quiet. And then we heard from somebody two grenades were shot on Markela market. I knew that my father was going every day on the market. Then we turned on the radio and they started reading a list of the dead. That was a moment when I was waiting, sitting there just waiting to hear my father's name.

"And at one moment they said 'Hasimbegovic'. And I was like 'Uhhh.' It was really something. It was just a second or a few seconds. Then it was another Hasimbegovic, one of our cousins. This is moment that I don't like to remember, maybe one of the most difficult."

The exhibition can evoke painful memories for survivors. Newspaper clippings about the independence vote, about the first peace rallies, about the first sniper attacks. There are rifles from the Second World War, used to defend the city, uniforms sewn out of blankets; photographs of makeshift vegetable gardens, where lawns used to be; of the Olympic stadium, a graveyard where the playing field used to be.

There is an exhibit on a grenade attack on a classroom. The books are still bloodstained. The photos are horrific in their detail.

"This is that classroom that I was talking about. You see the blood all over, the bags, the board. You can see here pieces of hair and of brain of the teacher and bloody books and pens and bags," Elma says. "These are drawings from these children, maybe some of them were killed at that time. This is what was found in the classroom, what they were doing at the time, at that moment." Faruk Sabanovic remembers that moment well. It was November 1993 and his younger brother was among the students. Faruk found him alive, uninjured. He was one of the lucky ones.

"I ran over there to help. So I came in, I see the teacher knocked to the board, dead. The whole classroom was covered in blood," he says. "And before me, there was a mother who came to the classroom and found her kid, but she didn't have a place to kiss him because he was totally torn apart."

Like Elma, Faruk Sabanovic is young – only 28. He looks like any young artisan. Faruk is an award-winning graphic designer. He first made his mark directing a music video for a friend's band.

His work – some commercial, some humanitarian – now adorns billboards and fills television screens. He says that during the war the beauty of Sarajevo was the only thing that kept his spirit alive in the face of daily tragedies. "I used to play guitar so we were out and playing and so on," he says. "All of a sudden I hear shots. I turn around and see the kid lying on the ground. She was very young and beautiful. That's one of the only things that remained in my mind, is the beauty of the faces, of the light that always falls when it happens. There is some kind of split of your personality that there is one guy inside of me who remembers the beautiful day, the nice light that falls, that shines on this body, on the skin. She had two belly buttons, one from the day she was born, and another from the day she was killed, you know because she was shot in the stomach right beside her belly button. And there is this third side of me that started yelling at the police that tried to do something because you feel so helpless and desperate."

As helpless and desperate as Faruk felt that day watching a young girl die, his life in Sarajevo would get more desperate, more helpless before the war ended.

On March 3, 1995, he was shot by a sniper.


Sabanovic hit by a sniper's bullet.
Faruk is a paraplegic. He'll be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

"It was a beautiful spring day. I was crossing the street on this crossroad, then all of a sudden I heard a bullet hitting the ground behind me. I fell down I realized I was wounded. I was trying to calm down, to lose as much energy as possible. I realized I can't breath really easily. Some civilian approached me. The sniper started shooting again. Then the guy picked me up, carried me a few feet. And then some other people helped us to put us in some car and took us to the hospital. I was shot in the chest. I guess the sniper was aiming for the heart but he missed it for a tiny little bit. But the bullet went through my spine so I got some problems after that."


Sabanovic taken to safety.
Faruk had hoped he would walk again. The street corner where he was shot was well known for snipers and a television crew filmed the shooting. He did numerous interviews, including one with The New York Times, which piqued the interest of a doctor in Brooklyn. Eight months later, after the war ended, Faruk was flown to New York, but it was too late to do anything.

Coming home was difficult. After seeing the lights and the energy of New York, he finally realized how devastated Sarajevo was.

"When I arrived, my brother took me to the spot above Sarajevo called Zamajavec. The translation is "Dragon's Place" and that's the spot where you see Sarajevo," he says. "He took me there and told me like see the city and all these lights now. Can you believe that it's becoming alive. And really, watching down on the city, there were a few lights but it was so pathetic compared to New York. It hit me that night when he showed me the city and so on that actually I'm going to be back here and try to live here you know, it was quite difficult."

Life in Sarajevo after the war was hard enough for able-bodied survivors. For a paraplegic, it was almost impossible. Wheelchair access was not a priority. Almost eight years later, it remains a problem.

Faruk and I meet at his parent's fourteenth-floor apartment. The elevator breaks down after he arrives. When it is time to leave, his brother and I carry him down the stairs in his wheelchair.


Sabanovic meets Bill Clinton in 1997.
Spurned on by the daily challenges, Faruk began working to improve wheelchair access in Sarajevo. He founded an advocacy group, the Centre for Self Reliance. He put his artistic talents to good use. He did a TV public service announcement about a paraplegic "walking" through Sarajevo.

"It's called rare species," he says. "There's this guy slowly walking through the city that is in some huge rush. It's all so pathetic that he's slow and he can't walk and everything is so fast. The culmination of pathetic existence of this guy is when he takes out two feathers and sadly looks at them like if he could only fly. Then he starts flying actually with these two feathers above the city. He joins the rest of the guys in the wheelchairs who fly. They go away. It says there are only 725 people left in wheelchairs in Sarajevo. The idea is to ask how can the government promise to the rest of the four million people that they will solve the problems if they will not do it for 725 people."

Faruk worked to improve wheelchair access in the city for three years. He organized benefit concerts and led street protests. But slowly, his interests began to evolve. His main motivation wasn't "the cause" anymore. It was the people he was working with, especially Sarajevo's young artists.

"All the people who were involved were not people with disabilities, but just normal," he says. "Everybody was so cool. And I realized that I shouldn't put myself in certain part of society just because I physically belong to it. So I decided that I just have to move on."

So Faruk went back to school to study at Sarajevo's prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. His first music video took off and so did his new career. He's currently working on a film script with producers in France. If it goes ahead, he'd like to see it filmed closer to Sarajevo. The city is and always will be his home.

"Every day I fall in love with Sarajevo," he says. "Now I'm so desperately in love with it I don't know if ever I could go out. There are the old parts of the city, built by the Turkish Empire, some with Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is communistic architecture; there is some kind of futurism in some places. And it's all so strangely mixed, but still so totally neglected. And there is some kind of spirit to the city that is much more spiritual than materialistic."

Back at the Historical Museum, Elma is looking over the photos, the keepsakes, reminders of the misery that Sarajevo endured and a testament to the spirit it took to endure it.

It's a spirit, Elma says, that the city no longer has.

"This is a tragedy of this city I think, because people now, people today think these times were better than today," she says. "Like the war stopped and the suffering stopped but that Sarajevo lived much better in the war, when the spirit of the city was much stronger."

That is the challenge facing Sarajevo today.

It survived the war through the strength and solidarity of its citizens. Now how does it keep that spirit alive in times of peace?


Sabanovic presents at a 1997 conference.
"Today, everybody's living his or her own life and not care about this unity, this friendship, this relationship which was much stronger in the war time," she says. "I think that people lived for these times, when they could speak about spirit or something like that. It was a recent past of this city and soon we will forget about it because when you go on streets now, you cannot notice. Soon we will forget that it happened here."




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